Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Lot to Digest?

I was going to ramble on about something else but John Kynaston's recent post on nutrition brought me back to this for (I hope!) the last time for a while. I think all the theories have been pretty well covered by people far more qualified than me, but I have found the anecdotal evidence from everyone interesting and helpful, so for what it's worth here is my contribution, just a collection of thoughts on what I've experienced and what I think I've learned over the past few years.

1. Why is nutrition so important?
 Since I got interested in ultras four years ago I've read a lot of race reports, and a common thread is
 - if you didn't perform as well as you had hoped in a 50 mile race, it is quite likely to have been a nutrition problem
- if you didn't perform as well as you had hoped in a 100 mile race, it is very likely to have been a nutrition problem
OK, some people twist ankles (unlucky or careless), some end up with sore muscles (not enough training), but lots of well prepared people have a tough time on the day because the food doesn't work out right.

2. Listening to the experts
The advice I've seen is interesting and directionally useful but I'm sceptical that anyone can just tell you what to do and it will work. Two problems at least:-
- you have to work out your own "energy balance" figures, the "rule of thumb" ones are just too approximate. I see figures quoted for the energy you burn when running, but in two different runs last week I recorded 430 cals/hour and 990 cals/hour (Garmin figures, but is there a better source?). This is already a wide range, but I'm a fairly average 11 stones in weight  -  if you are 7 stones or 14 the figures would be very different.
- nutritionists are rarely if ever "average" ultra runners. Some don't run at all, so will not appreciate what it's like trying to make a food choice 20 hours into a race, and at the other extreme some are the top ultra runners who (a) run a lot faster than me so will burn energy much faster, and (b) get round even the longest races in not much over 24 hours, so don't know what it feels like at the end of a second night out.

3. The amount of calories you can take in per hour.
Again I've seen quoted figures but these are for a runner with a set physiology and particular weight going at a particular speed. This must also vary widely. I haven't recorded exactly what I've eaten/drunk in many races, I'm not that organised, but here are a few examples from occasions when I did take the trouble:
- In the 2009 Highland Fling I took in 4000 cals; for a 10,5 hour run this was 380 cals/hour.
- In the 2010 Highland Fling I took in 2400 cals; for a 10,2 hour run this was 235 cals/hour.
I can't remember which run felt better, I remember them as being about the same.
-In the 2010 West Highland Way I took in 4000 cals; for a 23,5 hour run this was 174 cals/hour.
My experience has been that I can take in more cals/hour in shorter (50 mile) races because it takes 12 hours or so of action before the continuous motion of running starts to affect digestion. Conversely (or may be logically) on events with a lot of hills where the average pace is much lower (more walking), I tend to eat more.

4. When to eat
The advice is to start replacing carbs right from the start of the race. I have found I have to be very careful not to overeat in the first 30-50 miles. The paradox here is that food tastes good in the early part of a race and you are tempted to take in plenty to get it "in the bank", but this is the very period when you are going fastest so have the least spare energy for digestion. In the WHW race I have traditionally met my crew for the first time at Rowardennan (27 miles), stopped for breakfast and then waddled out so full of tea and butties that I could barely walk for the next few miles. I have firmly come to the view that "a little and often" is the way for me; this is quoted received wisdom by many, but it doesn't square with the sort of food that is usually on offer at fully provided events - lots of pasta, cakes, bread and cheese, etc.

5. What to eat
For me there is not (or maybe not yet) any magic answer; also, I find that the advice to try out your race nutrition in training simply doesn't work. For example I once tried Perpetuem, liked it, tried it out on a 55 mile training run and it worked great. I used it as the main nutrition strategy for that year's WHW and it was a disaster; I found I couldn't stand the stuff after 20 miles and ate almost nothing from there to the end.
The bit of advice that has worked best for me is to work more with liquids and gels rather than solids; I really enjoy a Mars bar or a marmalade sandwich but I know now that a gel or a milkshake will do me more good for longer.
I know a lot of people move from sweet to savoury tastes as they go through the event; I agree with this to a certain extent but I also find that some sweet things such as low-flavour gels (like Gu), fizzy Coke, crystallised ginger, etc hit the spot right through to the end. I think it's worth trying lots until you discover your own fallback fuels.
Although it didn't feel right when I first started this "athletic" activity, I'm now happy to get a lot of my calories from fizzy drinks if they're available  - Coke and ginger beer are my favourites. I used to "pre-flatten" them to go in a conventional hydration system but they taste so much better with the fizz still in  - although you do get sticky hands at times!

6. Eating "enough"
The biggest encouragement in recent discussions, a big eye-opener if you like, has been the general consensus on how little food you can absorb continuously  -  put another way how little you can get by on and still run a good race. I think this has removed a huge psychological barrier. I (and I'm sure others) used to worry that we "weren't eating enough" to survive the course; this puts an additional pressure on you, you try unsuccessfully to take in more food, and it's easy to get into a downward spiral of mental negativity. In the 2007 CCC, I was recovering from a bad cold, coughing a lot and not eating  much in the days leading up to the race. I ate nothing in the race itself except Coke and chicken noodle soup but finished in the first quarter of the field, easily my best result in the Chamonix races; on reflection, the fuel was perfectly adequate and my attitude of "well there really isn't any alternative today" contributed to the relaxation required for a good run. It's taken me over three years to evaluate this properly. I'm now happy that 150-200 cals/hour will get me around, less if there's a lot of walking involved.

7. The other stuff 
The other stuff of course is hydration and electrolyte balance. I'm still working on hydration; I don't often get thirsty so the advice to "drink to thirst" doesn't work, I have to experiment with different intake rates to try to maintain weight during a long outing. It's a tricky business and any advice would be welcome; at the moment I seem to be homing in on between two and four hours running from a litre of fluid, depending on temperature and activity level.
In many of my events I have suffered from nausea at some point. By a couple of years ago I had understood that this was almost certainly due to electrolyte imbalance, but what to do about it? The big problem I had that once it started I couldn't seem to work through it, it was with me until the end of the race. I had tried Nuun (couldn't take any of the flavours after 12 hours or so) and Succeed caps (got worried about taking too many in relation to fluid intake in case it made things worse). After a lot of experimenting (which you can normally only do under race conditions!) I have come to the conclusion that Succeed is best for me, one an hour in normal conditions regardless of fluid intake; I have also found that taking two or three together with a drink or a bowl of soup can actually retrieve a situation that is starting to get bad.

That's it then, more than enough from me on this subject, though I'm very interested to learn of other peoples' experiences and strategies. I had a great outing in the Lakes on Friday, round a bit of the Lakeland 100, blue skies above and frozen ground underfoot, that's what the game's really about, fuel is just a means to an end.


John Kynaston said...

Great post. Some interesting thoughts based on real life!

Have you thought any more about training on empty?

Anonymous said...

Andy, if i may just add that finding something that works and sticking with it, is essential. Indeed that echoes across many aspects of ultra running from nutrition, hydration, footwear, equipment, drop bag contents etc etc. On the nutrition piece i have suffered on recent races from changing both my pre-race meal and or the main run fuel. If you cannot get all you sachets / packets / pots of fuel X in your bumbag or run sack as well as the kit list, buy or borrow a slightly larger bag.
If it works, and you have the confidence of running at least as far as the intended race distance over similar terrain, then reject all the attractions of the latest uber powder, gel, capsule. Go with what you know.

55 miles in 7hrs 35 and 8700ft ascent on 6 Gu gels seems a good marker in the sand !!!
(see 21 Jan on Toni Krupicka's blog -

ps see you at HM55.